Though the internet only came into being fairly recently, it is an invention with implications similar to, if not more profound, than the wheel. Humans have only just begun adapting to the anthropological effects of the internet. Many of the consequences remain to be seen.
On a personal level, the access to unfathomable amounts of information can be just as disorienting as empowering. The unassuming dimensions of a “smart” phone has led to the now familiar eye contact-less circles of craned necks. This is a cultural norm that anthropologists fifteen years ago would find unimaginable, save works of science fiction.
Yet, as new as these technological forces may be, there remains a tendency in discourse to erase traditions and movements that have existed for long periods of time. For example, though the social movement #BlackLivesMatter is certainly new, the black American diaspora community has been protesting extrajudicial violence within popular discourse since at least slave catchers became the American police force. #BlackLivesMatter is certainly revolutionary in many important respects, but there can be a dangerous erasure of histories of political resistance that gets lost in the purported complete newness of modern movements. Complacency is easy when current social change is seen as uniquely revolutionary, without any reference for progression. At the same time, denying new characteristics in contemporary social movements usually leads to a type of misinformed and apathetic cynicism. Yet, knowing what characteristics actually defines a contemporary moments can be incredibly difficult living within that period, especially with the rapid expansion of information technologies.
Even though this expanse of knowledge is real, there is a manufactured paralysis of an individual’s own types of social privilege. Though social privilege is not a fixed object, there is a tendency to accept clean theories of progress along the ways a person can be privileged. This is a broad tendency that I would like to examine in a context in which I have more knowledge.
In recent years, “visibility” has become a paradigmatic word to describe themes of transgender and gender-queer representation in media and public space. This word, as a concept to describe a current moment, has a fairly flexible application. Still, from many perspectives, when understood as “increasing,” “visibility” is usually understood to be a positive sign of change. “Visibility” often becomes a rhetorical repository for all action on behalf of people who are transgender among Bates discussions with cis- students on justice for trans people. It is relatively common to hear the main part of the solution to discrimination against trans and genderqueer individuals to be answered with vague “visibility.” Frankly, I do not know what is meant by this, nor do I think it has any efficacy. Simply being allowed to exist visibly in public spaces, does not necessarily deconstruct white centric cis-hetero patriarchal societal structures. Combatting discrimination against trans-people is far more multifaceted than being visible in public spaces. This is especially the case when being visibly of queer gender presentation can become met with reactionary violence. Further, “visibility” operates under the presumption that the issue is incumbent on trans and genderqueer to solve, it obfuscates the ability for cis people to advocate on behalf of trans people in employment discrimination, reactionary violence, gender marked bathrooms, or any number of well publicized issues. This does not even touch on the basic demands to be inclusive in language, activism, and application of emotional labor. Furthermore, the discourse “visibility” decouples contemporary American trans activism from any type of historical impetus. Transgender equality cannot be extricated from European colonialism for a plethora of reasons, particularly as inculcating gender binaries were a large part of white European colonial projects. This fact becomes manifest in moments of political resistance like the heading of the Stonewall riots by black and brown drag queens.
Though this idea of “visibility” is certainly more complicated than I have space or the knowledge to exhaust, I think it demonstrates a particularly important reality that seems to have become heightened in the age of the internet. It is relatively easy to be flummoxed by massive amounts of information and impetuously accept culturally reproduced ideas about groups outside one’s own knowledge base.